Christ and the Powers: Part 1, Paul's Demythologization of the Powers

Many thanks to John Nugent for recommending to me Hendrik Berkhof's book Christ and the Powers. I'd like to take a few posts to gather some notes and quotes from the book.

Christ and the Powers was translated from the Dutch by John Howard Yoder. Berkhof's treatment of the Powers in the NT letters of Paul was foundational for Yoder's own treatment of the Powers in his seminal book The Politics of Jesus. In fact, Yoder mentions in his Translator's Epilogue that his own treatment of the Powers in The Politics of Jesus "is little more than an expansion of Berkhof's analysis." In short, Christ and the Powers, published in Dutch in 1953 and in English in 1962, is one of the seminal works in NT studies regarding "the principalities and powers."

In the work I've summarized on this blog I've focused on the pair "the principalities and powers" (archai kai exousiai). Berkhof focuses on the singular word exousiae, generally translated as "Powers." Berkoff starts by noting the nine instances of exousiae in the Pauline letters: Rom. 8.38-39, 1 Cor. 2.8, 1 Cor. 15.24-26, Eph. 1.20, Eph. 2.1-2, Eph. 3.10, Eph. 6.12, Col. 1.16, Col. 2.15.

Having noted these texts Berkhof asks the obvious question: What was Paul imagining when he spoke of "the Powers"?

Important to note here is that Paul didn't invent this language. The Powers feature in Jewish apocalyptic literature (e.g., the book of Enoch). There the Powers refer to categories of angelic beings. And Paul does mention the Powers in lists that include angels (Rom. 8.38). The question Berkhof asks is if Paul shared this conception, conceiving of the Powers as personalized spiritual beings, or if Paul departed in significant ways from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.

To answer this question Berkhof begins with the famous text from Romans 8:
Romans 8.37-39
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In examining this list Berkhof argues that Paul wasn't conceiving of the Powers in any personalized sense. The Powers are listed with a group of fairly abstract forces, things like space (height and depth) and time (present and future). The key phrase is "anything else in all creation." In short, Paul seems to be listing created realities that exert influence and domination upon earth. Berkhof's assessment:
[A]ll the list is summed up under the heading "creatures." Obviously Paul means to name a number of realities, which are a part of our earthy existence, and whose role is one of domination...It is clear that these realities are not all thought of as persons, much less as angels. The fact that Paul could weave the names of angelic powers into such a list of abstractions would indicate that his emphasis lies not on their personal-spiritual nature, but rather on...the fact that these Powers condition earthly life.
In sum, Berkhof argues that Paul definitely saw the Powers, along with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, as exerting influence upon the earth, upon human affairs in particular. However, in a departure with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition Paul seems to downplay the personal, anthropomorphic aspects of the Powers.

Berkhof finds additional evidence of this depersonalization of the Powers in the thought of Paul in an analysis of how the Powers relate to the word stoicheia. Berkhof has us consider the relation of the Powers to stoicheia in Colossians 2:
Colossians 2.8, 15-17, 20-21
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces [stoicheia] of this world rather than on Christ...

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ...

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces [stoicheia] of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 
Notice how Christ's defeat of the Powers (v. 15) is embedded in a discussion of the stoicheia, translated by the NIV as "elemental spiritual forces." Other translations of stoicheia:
"elemental spirits of the world"

"the rudiments of the world"

"the elementary principles of the world"

"the elemental spirits of the universe"
Obviously, there is some interpretive variation here and it goes to the point Berkhof is trying to make. Stoicheia comes from the Greek root στοιχέω, a verb which means to order in rows or to walk/march in a line. The idea here is ordering. Stoicheia is a noun indicating something so ordered, the thing that sets up the order or the first thing in the order. From this idea--the thing that sets up or starts off an ordering--stoicheia could mean something like "fundamentals" or "basic elements" or "governing principles."

That explains translations like "elementary principles" and "rudiments." Where does "elemental spirits" come from? Well, according to many of the ancients the forces that set up and ground the order of the world, universe and cosmos were spiritual beings. Alternatively, the forces that ordered a person's life/fate were the stars and planets. Basically, the stoicheia were the cosmic and spiritual forces that structured and ordered the universe as well as being the forces that determined your fate.  Suddenly it becomes clear why Paul connects the stoicheia with the Powers. The stoicheia are examples of the Powers.

Understanding that the stoicheia are Powers that Christ defeated we can return to the issue of how Paul imagined the Powers. Specifically, did Paul see the Powers as angelic beings?

If the stoicheia are Powers note how Paul characterizes them in Colossians 2. The stoicheia are (verse 8) associated with "philosophy" and "human tradition." The stoicheia are associated (verses 20-21) with moral regulations like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”.

In short, these stoicheia are ordering the moral/ethical realm. The stoicheia are rules, regulations, traditions and moral philosophies. The Christians Paul is writing to are submitting to these stoicheia, something that Paul describes as a captivity or bondage (verse 8). But Christ has defeated the Powers, among them these moral stoicheia. Consequently, there is freedom from the Powers. Thus Paul's conclusion: "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day."

The point in all this is to note that Paul's conception of the Powers (like the stoicheia) was fairly abstract. Paul wasn't, it seems, thinking about the Powers as angelic beings. Paul seems to be thinking of the Powers more as structures that ordered the cosmos. The concern in Colossians 2 is with the Powers that structured and ordered human moral affairs, things like traditions, regulations, rules, and moral philosophies.

One conclusion we can take from all this is that Paul's conception of the Powers was different from that found in Jewish apocalyptic thought. Specifically, while Paul agreed that the Powers had influence upon human affairs Paul tended to deemphasize the personal, angelic nature of the Powers. In short, Berkhof argues, Paul was involved in a process of demythologization:
[The Powers are] the framework of creation, the canvas which invisibly supports the tableau of the life of men and society.

[I]t is obvious that for Paul the Powers are something quite different from what Jewish apocalyptic had in mind..Their angelic nature is--to say the least--not emphasized. Romans 8 and the study of the stoicheia do not lead us to think of personal beings...[I]n comparison to the apocalypticists a certain "demythologizing" has taken place in Paul's thought. In short, the apocalypses think primarily of the principalities and powers as heavenly angels; Paul sees them as structures of earthy existence.
Click for Part 2 of 3

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

26 thoughts on “Christ and the Powers: Part 1, Paul's Demythologization of the Powers”

  1. One interesting addition, drawing from Yoder's own discussion of stoicheia in Naming the Powers, is that the term also refers to the letters of the alphabet. As the smallest unit that orders writing, letters are an example of stoicheia. I am particularly fascinated by the readings of the text that this opens up. First, this meaning of stoicheia fits very nicely alongside Paul's critique of those who would subject others to 'the letter of the law'. I don't have an informed opinion on what Paul might have primarily had in mind, but the term works equally well to critique an obsessive and narrow legalism, word and letter mysticism, and Greek atomism.

    I find the metaphor/metaphysical position that the cosmos is fundamentally made of words spoken by God to be an incredibly rich way to talk about a lot of theology. The notion is deeply grounded in Genesis. With this metaphysic in hand, one that Paul would presumably embrace even though he never elaborated it as such, stoicheia, as letters, can seamlessly refer to both the words of the law spoken by God, and the words of Creation spoken by God. And in both cases, the problem is not that the words spoken by God are wicked and should be denied. It is instead that worshiping the words, like worshiping the angels, are examples of disordered worship. But all of this runs up against, or sits in deep tension with, the notion that Jesus is the living Word. That is a tension I would embrace.

  2. I find it strange that this comes so close to the fact that I have been reading and listening to Michael Hardin's "the satan."

  3. "It is clear that these realities are not all thought of as persons, much less as angels. The fact that Paul could weave the names of angelic powers into such a list of abstractions would indicate that his emphasis lies not on their personal-spiritual nature..."

    Amazingly slanted deductions from Berkhof. Based on the same list, we could just as easily say:

    "The fact that Paul could weave the names of angelic powers into such a list [alongside clearly personalized spiritual forces like angels and demons] would indicate that his emphasis [does in fact] lie on their personal-spiritual nature..."

    Romans 8 presents an exhaustive list, containing both personal forces and abstractions. The way the list is composed should not by any stretch cause us to cast personal forces in an impersonal light or cast impersonal forces in a personal light.

    What *is* abundantly clear however is that Paul believes in the existence of very personal spiritual forces.

    The attempt to depersonalize exousiae based on precious little actual evidence in the text makes Berkhof's reading feel strained. It's hard not to see the old modernist preoccupations at work in these attempts to reimagine an abstract, clean, mechanistic universe, safely insulated from any accusations of "superstition".

    Just re-reading Wink this week, who has very similar hang-ups around personalized powers. Along with this summary of Berkhof I'm really left wishing for a reading of "the powers" that is not so slavishly adherent to modernist neuroses.

  4. To clarify a bit, this emphasis on demythologizing is more mine than Berkhof. I readily admit that my theological inclinations are to reconcile the biblical worldview with modernity. So when I read this in Berkhof, that Paul had this tendency, I pulled it for my notes (i.e., a blog post).

    In short, Berkhof isn't saying that Paul is engaged in project of demythologizing akin to, say, Bultmann. He's just noting that Paul's description of the Powers is more depersonalized than what is seen in other concurrent Jewish accounts. I'm not qualified to judge that claim. But from how I read Paul it does seem that his general frame of mind is that the Powers are structural orders of Creation rather than spirits with names.

  5. As I read Wink, he is decidedly agnostic about this personal aspect, and about how realist or nominalist we should be about the forms. He definitely has his modernist sympathies, especially when he gets all psycho-analytical. But if pressed, I suspect that Wink would come down on the personal and realist side of things. Depending on whether you asked him before lunch, or after lunch :)

  6. @all,

    I don't see Paul creating some kind of taxonomy here. The point is about not being able to be separated from god's love is it not? It looks like to me that Paul is being more literary than scientific and is listing any kind of power one might conceive or imagine in the cultures he's involved- whether personal or not. To make this an apologetic for Paul's personal views doesn't fit the force of the text imho.

  7. This speaks to your earlier series on Greg Boyd's work and spiritual warfare. I think there are very good reasons to reject Boyd's enthusiasm for angels and demons.

  8. Richard, I hear that you'd like to reconcile a biblical worldview with modernity but in this case it seems like the modernism gets the cake and eats it too and the biblical worldview is getting completely silenced.

    I am open to the possibility that Paul's account of the powers might be marginally less personalized than that of other Jewish thinkers of his time. But quoting that minor difference to build a case for demythologizing is like those Republican pundits who are fond of invoking the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. to support various conservative causes.

    Why can't the powers be both personal, named and fully identified with a human institution? Why can't human institutions be the product of a melding of wills--individual human wills, groups wills, as well as the wills of the spiritual beings that Paul apparently believes in?

    It seems to me the biblical worldview should not accept the forced choice between spiritual and material reality that is being dictated by modernism in this case.

  9. "My main objection to personalizing demons is that by doing so, we give them a "body" or form separate from the physical and historical institutions through which we experience them. I prefer, therefore, to regard them as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life." (Wink, The Powers That Be, p. 27)

    I agree with you though, Dan, that there is enough postmodernism in Wink to at least keep him cautious in making these claims.

  10. I hear that and understand those concerns.

    But if it's hard for many moderns, and I'd put myself in this group, to believe in the "wills of spiritual beings" then either you 1) lump it of leave it (and here I'm referring to Bonhoeffer's criticism in Letters & Papers of Barth's theological "positivism" in a world come of age), or 2) participate in the liberal theological project. I'm doing #2.

    People might not like the liberal theological project, but I'm not doing it for people. I'm working out my own salvation in fear and trembling.

  11. I see that. But at the end of the day I'm a psychologist rather than a theologian. I have a rather low view of "rational argument" and its ability to persuade people. I think theological argument is often ad hoc. It's why people talk past each other, even those academics in the Ivory Tower.

    So I don't try to persuade people because, and we all know this, we will eventually get down to some felt sensibilities that fundamentally differ. I don't know what to do with those "irreconcilable differences." I've never seen rational argument work once we reach that point. So why bother?

    I do know I don't have the time to argue down to that bedrock of "irreconcilable differences" in every comment thread.

    But what I can do this this: If someone is struggling to hold different things together (like the bible and modernity) and they share sensibilities similar to mine, then sharing how I "hold things together" can be helpful to them. So I share.

    But if sensibilities aren't shared then I really don't know what to say other than, "I see your concern and respect it. But I can't help you on this point. Blessings to you my brother/sister."

  12. And lets get practical about this. If I have a struggling believer in front of who doesn't believe in literal demons what are my options? Two it seems: 1) Liberal theology or 2) convince them that demons exist.

    I have no idea how to do #2. So there you go.

  13. Touche :) But before lunch, he can say: "As the inner aspect, [the powers] are the spirituality of institutions, the "within" of corporate structures and systems, the inner essence of outer organizations of power...When a particular Power becomes idolatrous, _placing itself_ above God's purposes for the good of the whole, then that Power becomes demonic." (Naming the powers, loc 115/2675) When Wink states his whole thesis, we have non-agents that can't be described without attributing agency to them. He acknowledges that there is an irreducible trace that is not captured in the language of psychology or sociology. But then, after lunch, he prefers to regard them impersonally. I share his preference. I'm a modern person who likes running water, deodorant and not believing in non-human agents. But I also share his conviction that this just doesn't quite add up.

  14. You don't, of course, have to do #1 or #2. You could leave this as an open question--without suggesting that somehow affluent, white, rationalistic Westerners (the only people I know who don't believe in demons) are the best people to determine what Paul is saying.

    Meanwhile, of course it's fine to explore the insights of Wink or Berkhof, and to consider the possibility that Paul really is depersonalizing these powers. And it's fine to share those insights with anyone to whom they're helpful.

    But I have some sympathy for Tim F and the "slavish adherence to modern neuroses" take. And I do want to note that (as far as I can tell) Tim F agrees with you that we can't leave institutions and principles out of account and turn Paul's "powers" into red-horned boogeymen.

  15. I don't know about this struggling believer scenario, Richard. As someone with modernist biases myself I probably wouldn't have very satisfactory comfort to offer. Chances are this struggler only gets invited into further struggle, into my own struggle, which is a pretty lame and unsatisfactory response. But on the other hand a half-ass discomfort is better than a convicted, comforting reassurance that turns out to be untrustworthy.

    For me, this scenario you brought up sets the stage for a completely banal instance of the struggle for belief in any aspect of any religion. Faith itself is always about the reconciliation between an inherited record of truth and "my own personal experience". Personally, the more central to historical christianity a certain doctrine is, the more tenaciously I feel responsible not to cast it aside carelessly.

    This begins to expresses what "religion" means to me, i.e. to seek and welcome the state of being "bound" in some meaningful way to a testimony located outside of my immediate memories and instincts. To be religious is to feel that this state of "binding" is trustworthy, productive, hopeful, with a great deal risked on whether or not the testimony I am bound to is in fact true.

  16. I also seek to be so bound. It's why, as a modern person, I actually write a great deal about the Powers, demons and the satanic. I get digging a lot from liberal who think I should give up wholesale on all the spooky talk. So I get it from both sides.

  17. I'm also sympathetic to Tim F. Did my post sound particularly harsh and judgmental? Did my post disparage those who believe differently, suggesting that Berkhof's reading is "best"?

    Honestly, Jonathan, I don't know where you get this stuff or why you take swipes like this.

  18. I like jlh's suggestion :3) note that you don't have to have an opinion or an answer. Theologically, I don't see how anyone could maintain that your salvation depends on faith in demons, regardless of whether you are right or wrong about them. So you can add that this not-knowing might also have little urgency or importance anyway. I think there is another good option: Wink-esque realism. (Realism being used in the scholastic sense, claiming that demons, like other ideas, possess some kind of reality beyond their status as ideas).This opens up into a general philosophical discussion of realism vs nominalism, and in spite of all the modernist rhetoric that must have seeped into us in the womb, it is not as if nominalism has actually carried the day. One can also be a realist, and critique the mapping between our own ideas and the ideas in the world; it does not entail reification. I think this is important: you might think that collective will or other forms of extra-human agency exist, and also think that panics about demon possession and witches are just irrational panics. Critical realism (in the scholastic sense) is just as viable as critical realism (in the contemporary sense)...and I'm not really sure of what the difference between these critical realisms is. All of that to say: instead of just saying you don't know, you can always go a bit further before you say you don't know. And isn't that what inquiry and learning are all about?

  19. I basically see it as Wink sees it. That's how I use the language of the demonic. But I've always viewed Wink's analysis as a type of demythologizing.

    Basically, if I had this person in front of me I'd tell them about Wink and see that as doing #1 above.

  20. I'm the center of something.

    You know, I don't want to have a view or a school of thought or a position. I simply find lots in liberal theology helpful. So I chaff when people point out the weaknesses and problems of liberal theology. Like I'm a naif and am clueless about those problems. I'm AWARE. I get the criticisms. I see the problems. Still, being who I am and my particular intellectual struggles I find lots of liberal theology helpful. And others won't. And the world turns.

  21. I took this phrase poorly: "without suggesting that somehow affluent, white, rationalistic
    Westerners (the only people I know who don't believe in demons) are the
    best people to determine what Paul is saying."

    I didn't say--ever--that "affluent, white, rationalistic Westerners are the best people to determine what Paul is saying." That's a swipe and a gross mischaracterization.

    How do you, if you are reading me charitably, go from "people who struggle with belief in literal demons will find demythologizing approaches like Wink's helpful" to "affluent, white, rationalistic Westerners are the best people to determine what Paul is saying"?

    And I apologize for being overly sensitive about that remark, but it's close to a slur.

  22. Exactly what I was thinking. Kind of reminds me of the Veggie tales song, "Jesus is bigger than the Boogy Man."

    The aim is to make a point about the character of God and the relationship we have with him. The opposing "powers" can be anything that any given person might possibly imagine and fear.

  23. Yes, and I think you are probably closer to Wink's actual thinking than what I called "Wink-esque" realism. I think that is a distinct, and intellectually defensible, option that is arguably also part of Wink's actual thinking. But distinct from any Winkology, I think you can draw out the ambiguities in Wink and come up with a "nominalist Wink" and a "realist Wink." The nominalist Wink would be the purely modernist, demythologizing, 'liberal' Wink. And the realist Wink would be pre/post-modernist, non-mythological and 'conservative.' Your Wink is probably more like Wink, and is entirely defensible. But I think the second Wink is much more interesting, also intellectually defensible, and opens up wider horizons of inquiry.

  24. I don't think we're far apart. And I will admit that the "affluent, white, rationalistic Westerners" remark was over the top. I think I was responding to what I saw as a move from "I don't believe in demons" to "O.K., then to reach out to you, we'll follow liberal theology and claim that Paul didn't believe in literal demons." In that I associate the first sentence with the blindness of a particular subculture (my own), and I saw it motivating your (or Berkhof's) selective reading of Paul, I do feel that this particular subculture is given too much exegetical heft in liberal theology. (So do you--you've said so elsewhere.) But no, nothing in your post resembled that phrase of mine, and I'm sorry my train of thought led me to an uncharitable reading.

  25. Hello, Interested to read your blog and comments. My take on Paul's treatment of the powers is that he does believe they have influence on human life and does believe they are personal. While terms like principalities, powers and stoichea may be amenable to abstraction, I don't see how others such as angels and demons can be, in any faithful exegesis. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that Paul deliberately does not emphasize the personal nature of these forces. Perhaps he's obeying his own injunction "to be simple concerning evil" (Rom.16:19).

    My interest in this issue is of a practical nature. I'm interested, Richard, to hear you're a psychologist because it's our emotional/psychological experience of these powers that I think is significant. I've been meditating on Colossians 2 lately and verses 20,21 are pertinent in this regard. "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"? The Colossians were alive to some inner force that was causing them to engage in ascetic practices. This sounds to me an awful lot like our "modern" experience of superstitious fear e.g. "touch wood," "cross yourself," "get the baby baptized," "go to church," "tithe" or something bad will happen. It appears we human beings are and always have been vulnerable to these vague forces which we fear at some gut level.

    Paul has said in verse 15 that these principalities and powers have been disarmed through Christ's death and that they no longer have power over us. If we give heed to them through legalism, we are giving them an avenue into our lives. When we live a life of legalism and the condemnation that results, it certainly feels like we're experiencing dark powers. This is in line with what is said in Ephesians about angry behaviour and other sins giving a foothold to the devil i.e. there are different ways to let in different principalities. The bottom line is that most of us don't experience the kind of inner freedom that Paul proclaims. We give lip service to the fact that we're serving Christ, but our allegiance in the inner world too often remains with these powers. (I speak from personal experience.) For me, objectifying them, if only as vague entities, helps me see the serious consequences of paying attention to them and gives me incentive to reject them and live more freely in Christ. It helps me to not be as distracted, for example, by condemning thoughts and to be able to listen more often for Jesus, the Presence with me that is to replace these powers.

Leave a Reply